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Interview with Yin Paradies: structural violence on health, society, and economy

Updated: Aug 1

Interview by Sonora

Something is very wrong with the way we live. We have to return to health and wellbeing through deepening our connection to these horrors that occur every day, understanding our role in them and transforming our lives to enable us to live much more locally.”

Prof Yin Paradies

This interview features Prof Yin Paradies, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations at Deakin University. Yin’s work traces the effects of racism and structural violence on health, society, and economy. He is versed in anti-racism theory, policy and practice, Indigenous knowledge with emphasis on the Australian context, and decoloniality.

Sonora: Your work, Yin, is on a variety of topics covering the impact of racism on health, but also on anti-racism. You also worked on the Lancet Series on Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination and health. Could you start by telling me about your work in this area and how you developed your research interest in this space?

Yin: My research interest in this area started back during my PhD. I wanted to do something on social determinants of health and social epidemiology. I wasn't exactly sure where to go with that until I read a paper by Nancy Krieger on racism as a determinant of health. I realised then that that was an interesting topic to me and I focused my PhD on racism and health.

I became more involved in anti-racism work and cultural understanding and competency. All of this focused on Indigenous People in Australia to start with, and then I branched out to focus on other minoritised groups who experience racism and other approaches to anti-racism in different fields. More recently, in the past 5 years or so, I've been quite interested in decolonisation and Indigenous knowledges as a natural extension of my previous interest in anti-racism. But for some people it's a little strange, and they're not directly sure how all that relates to each other.

Sonora: Thank you for that, Yin. It’s always interesting to hear where people see connections between things, and where some people might not. You mentioned that lots of your research is focused on racism and health impacts for Indigenous People in Australia. In this series of Quarterly, we are focusing on the second paper in the Lancet Series which outlines pathways between racism and health. Could you speak to what those key pathways are, focusing on your research findings?

Yin: Racism is one of many “isms” in modern societies, and really they're all forms of exclusion, oppression and hierarchicalisation of people. Hierarchy is a very key feature of modernity, as is suppression and the creation of groups that are less worthy than others. So, racism is part of a broader complex.

Humans are naturally very sociable, we’re a pro-social species. Often the impacts of racism are through those reduced, marginalised and neglected forms of sociality. We know that social exclusion is much more damaging to humans than, say, physical violence, for example. Impacts on people's sense of self-worth and self-esteem create a plethora of physical and mental health outcomes, affecting all systems of the body negatively. This is especially when racism is chronic, extended and from multiple sources which is often the case for people who are subject to racism because of the way they look, talk or their cultural differences.

This then affects people’s behaviours, causing maladaptive coping behaviours and so forth. There are many cascading effects from racism. But essentially, it's a form of social exclusion and diminishment that's very bad for humans as a species.

Sonora: Could you elaborate on what you mean by reduced and marginalised forms of sociality?

Yin: Well, evolutionarily, humans are used to living in very close-knit deep, extensive kinship networks with other humans and non-humans. So, we already live in a kind of diminished society in terms of sociality. We often know many people, but without much depth. We find ourselves corralled into workplaces or nuclear families, or too busy to socialise to the extent that is good for us.

The added effect of exclusion within those existing spheres of life is quite extreme. Racism is an extra form of being minimised and silenced, downtrodden, and undervalued in various contexts of life. That has effects on sociality with other humans, including levels of trust, comfort, and the stress effects of being in heightened states of arousal because of threat or potential threat such a stereotype threat.

So that's what I mean by diminishment of sociality. Sociality is meant to be uplifting and nourishing for humans. But that’s often not the case if you are a target of these “isms”.

Sonora: Thank you for elaborating on that. This intersection of racism and health has been present in research but has been growing quite a lot recently. What changes have you seen in this field through your time doing research in this area?

Yin: There’s been a lot of changes. When I started doing this work quite a while ago in the early 2000s, at conference presentations and such, some people didn’t even see the point in studying racism and health. There were doubts about what you could find with existing methods and the characterisation of racism as a determinant of health was questioned. Interestingly, some people made the good point that we know racism is bad, so it doesn't matter what the health impacts are, because we should be addressing it anyway.

In a broad sense, that's correct, but there's also nuance to that. Knowing more about how racism impacts health can have some benefit in targeting anti-racism interventions to certain settings or certain manifestations or perpetrators of racism. I do see their point more generally; there are a lot of ills in modern societies that really don't receive much attention in terms of addressing them. In a sense, how much justification do you need?

So, I’ve done work on the health effects of racism. I've also done work on economic impacts of racism, for example, showing that it costs billions of dollars, I think around 2-3% of Australian GDP. Perhaps that's a useful justification for addressing racism, or perhaps it's just that there are some deeper conditions to society which preclude us from properly responding to racism. Unfortunately, I think that is quite likely in modern societies. Despite our best intentions, we aren't focusing on the right level of culture change to affect the necessary transformations.

Sonora: You mentioned that we're not addressing the right levels of culture to really address racism, its health impacts and “isms” more broadly. Could you collaborate on what those would be and perhaps speak to the ways that we can subvert these systems of discrimination and oppression?

Yin: Just to start with, racism is something that arose at a certain time in history and before that it didn't exist. Now, when exactly that time was is debatable. Was there evidence of racism in classical antiquity? Yes. To some extent, there was evidence of racism in mediaeval times, yes. Certainly, with the rise of colonisation in the 16th century there was evidence of racism. Racism morphed again with the rise of scientific forms of racism in the eighteenth century.

But really, the underlying conditions that drive “isms” such as racism are to do with our society. Our society is very stratified and very much about levels of privilege, levels of merit and worth, often couched in terms of status and more recently with capitalism in terms of competition. There’s a strong drive towards coercion, control, conformity and comparison, judgement, and condemnation in modern societies.

I contrast those with Indigenous cultures where there are very different approaches to all those things. In these cultures, racism doesn't exist, and neither do any other “isms” really. It’s a very different social situation and social context.

Those are the deeper levels of culture that I speak of. And that's what decolonisation is about. Understanding Indigenous Knowledge is about realising that there are other ways to configure, structure, and assemble societies. In modernity, we have ended up with a very unusual type of society. In the 330,000 years history of human beings, this social structure is unique, and not in good ways.

Sonora: Following on from that point, what does decolonisation mean for you, and what does it mean for health?

Yin: For me, decolonisation is a very deep transformation of a society in dire straits. We've exceeded the planetary limits, we’re in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, pollution is out of control and so on. These are health issues, planetary health issues. To return to thriving, nourishing ways of being, knowing, and doing is what health and wellbeing really should be about.

Health is about much more than healthcare systems. It's about how we live our lives. It's a question of why is there an epidemic of loneliness? Why are there are rising the suicide rates? Why do we actually have homeless people?

Something is very wrong with the way we live. We have to return to health and wellbeing through deepening our connection to these horrors that occur every day, understanding our role in them and transforming our lives to enable us to live much more locally. Knowing and being part of how our needs are met locally, having stronger connections and community, growing communities of care, deepening kinship relationships and having more empowered, directly participatory systems of decision making.

It basically is a lot of learning from Indigenous cultures that have done very well in thriving and health and well-being and balance and sustainability.

We have a lot to learn, and part of that is relinquishing the misplaced longings of industrial consumer society, the things we think we need and are addicted to, but that don't really nourish us, no matter how much of them we get.

Sonora: Thank you, Yin. You mentioned that we need to learn from Indigenous societies. Are there any resources that you would point people towards if they are just beginning their learning journey in this area?

Yin: Yes, I would suggest reading the book called Sand Talk by my colleague Tyson Yunkaporta, and the recent book called Restoring the Kinship Worldview by Darcia Narvaez and Don Trent Jacobs. Both of those would be a good place to start.

Sonora: Wonderful, thank you very much, Yin.

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